Wouldn’t it be wonderful if HBO just big-balled it and renamed their Emmy-winning hit comedy Veep to Peep, just totally pandering to idiots who ask the dumb question, “Now that she’s president are you gonna change the name?” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if HBO was just like, “Yep! Now please enjoy the season premiere of Peep!” A show called Peep!
The thing is, however, Peep would be cheap.
No, Veep has earned every single gut-busting, mile-a-minute laugh it’s crafted over the course of its run, the fourth season of which premiered Sunday night. Laziness like pandering to things like changing its name to reflect shocking plot advancements that transpired in its Season 3 finale—Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Vice President Selina Meyer is made president when POTUS steps down suddenly—doesn’t fit on a show that is as creatively energetic as Veep.
It’s a series that, by sprinting through a comedic marathon, has somehow both patiently and quickly become the best comedy series on TV.
Series creator Armando Iannucci set fire to the show’s entire premise when he made the aforementioned decision to, in last season’s finale, make Selina president. In terms of media astrology, Veep was born under the star of Sarah Palin. (Veep is a Sarahtarius, or maybe a Palisces.) At a time when the very idea of the office of the vice president was laugh fodder, Veep’s premise was that Julia Louis-Dreyfus would play the first woman to occupy that office, but from a perspective that mocks the uselessness of it.
The idea: How frustrating it must be to be one heart attack away from being the most powerful person in the world, and all the while have no power. Worse, how frustrating it must be to be competent and intelligent (the anti-Palin) while holding that lame duck office.
The genius of the bold creative decision to promote Selina comes through with a line just a minute into Sunday’s Season Four premiere. Smugly seated at her desk in the Oval Office, Selina is, as is always the case, tasked with putting out the fires caused by the hapless, pyromaniac team of imbeciles supporting her. “I’m the president,” she says. “Everything’s my fault now.”
Making Selina president in Season 4 of Veep wasn’t a stunt. It raised the stakes.
The show is still what it’s always been at its heart: a bird’s-eye view into a three-ring circus, as a troupe of political clowns haphazardly bungle the best intentions of their otherwise highly competent and professional ringleader, and watch and delight in her exasperation as she tries to wrangle the bozos back into their clown car.
But whereas in her powerless office of the vice president the clown show was mere pageantry and the repercussions of her team’s idiocy marginal at best, this time Selina is the leader of the free world. When her team screws up—which they still do, continually—there are real, dire consequences.
Any chump who’s completed Improv 101 can tell you how important stakes are to comedy. Well, they don’t get any higher than this.
The first episode begins, for example, with Selina’s team failing at the simplest of tasks. They can’t load her first speech to the joint session of Congress properly.
The mishap is perfectly crafted by Iannucci and the show’s writers. She’s about to tell the assembled House who she is and what she represents when the Teleprompter yields an error. “There are literally no words,” she says. “People want to know who I am, and I want to tell them so much.” At one point she accidentally gives a government group $10 billion more than she wanted to. Billion!
The hallmark of comedy these days derives from the shock value of truth-telling (think Inside Amy Schumer, Key and Peele, or Broad City), the brutal hilarity of life’s innate humor (i.e. Louie or Girls), or the catharsis of cringe-comedy (be it Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, or Silicon Valley). Veep doesn’t overtly fit in any of those categories—though it certainly classifies appropriately in the latter one. Instead, it trades in farce and frustration. A punchline, traditionally, builds to release in the form of a laugh track. Veep’s humor builds to release in the form of its characters’ expletive-laden rants; arias of four-letter words.
The Veep cast consists of comedy sharpshooters. The jokes whiz by at a rapid-fire pace. But the uniqueness of the show is that it intentionally pulses at a dangerously high blood pressure, with every character operating at inhumane levels of high anxiety. And in spite of that, it somehow manages to be pleasurable to watch, rather than stressful. It’s a tricky balance to pull off: a show that makes comedy out of calamity, and doesn’t come off exhaustingly manic or disastrous.
That it accomplishes such sheer levels of comedy bliss in the face of all that is owed to the unparalleled work of Louis-Dreyfus and the Masters of Exasperation cast that orbits around her. But beyond that it’s owed to the writing. Veep is known for its opera of insult, to be sure. References to “cock-thumb” and “Columbian tongue-sex,” and phrases like “that’s the long and shit of it” certainly uphold that legacy. But beyond the four-letter words and prowess in the art of the putdown, Veep is uncannily clever in using writing to create characterization.
There are lines, for example, like the one delivered by Anna Chlumsky as harried staff member Amy. “I’m almost crying,” she says. “I didn’t know I could still almost do that.” At its heart, Veep is a Shakespearean tragedy, a tale of people who have zapped their lives of love, fulfillment, and happiness of any sort in their pursuit not of power, but of adjacency to power.
These people are not even sacrificing their lives to the gauntlet of glory; they’re offering themselves up for someone else’s gain. They’re the most confusing, most pathetic of martyrs. And the show is only as funny as it is, and not an icky cringe-fest, because of the blatant self-awareness that these people have.
They’re making their own beds and happily lying in them. Not that they ever have time to sleep.
Whiz-bang comedy ensembles and titanic powerhouse female lead performances suffered a major loss this past season, with Parks and Recreation and Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope—fittingly enough, also a show rooted in politics—heading to the great TV beyond. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has picked up the quirkiness and weirdness slack, Louie and Girls continue their tradition in finding humor in humanity, and the likes of Mindy Kaling and Taylor Schilling are as adept as anyone at leading a stellar ensemble into comedic battle.
But no show manages to do all three—to be confidently strange, modern and relatable and unfiltered, and seamless in the way the ensemble operates. Veep does. More, no show is ballsy enough to take a creative risk as ambitious as making Selina president, thus rendering the entire title of the series irrelevant, and then carry the decision through to the next season and have it keep paying off in spades.
There are other things to note about the new season of Veep. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, beaming from underneath her purposefully horrifying wig, continues to deliver an unparalleled comedic performance. Patton Oswalt is a worthy addition to an already suffocatingly tight cast. And Tony Hale (Gary) and Dreyfus share a scene early in the season that practically combusts with comedy and emotion, and should win Veep—not to mention those actors—every award in the coming year.
But mostly, all you need to know is that Veep has assuredly become, hands down, the funniest comedy on TV. There’s not a peep to be said to the contrary.